Photo by Eli Meir Kaplan.
Anybody with an interest in politics and law has to marvel at – and admit to some envy of – Karen Dunn and her truly incredible career.
She served as an advisor to Sen. Hillary Clinton for four years before attending Yale Law School, and later clerked for D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Merrick Garland and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. She served as associate counsel to President Barack Obama before a stint as a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia. Dunn helped Obama with debate preparations in 2012 and did the same for candidate Clinton in 2016.
Dunn has also excelled in court since joining Boies Schiller Flexner, winning key jury verdicts for clients Apple and Oracle. She even found time to score a significant pro bono victory with her husband, Mayer Brown partner Brian Netter, that affirmed the Washington, D.C., Council’s budget autonomy. Dunn says that Boies Schiller is the perfect fit for her acclaimed practice that mixes high-stakes litigation with crisis management.
Lawdragon: In recent years, you’ve worked on some very high-profile cases as well as on the Clinton campaign’s debate prep, among other matters. Can you describe how you divide your time between cases and working with individuals on preparation for testimony or other appearances?
Karen Dunn: At any given time, my work includes a mix of large litigation matters for companies and work with individuals – sometimes that means preparing them for trial testimony, congressional testimony or, in the case of political figures, for public debates.
LD: Are these starkly different roles, or is the preparation and skill set more similar than one might imagine?
KD: The preparation and skill set are incredibly similar – sometimes even identical. Techniques that I have used to prepare Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for presidential debates often make their way into my witness preps for trial and jury addresses, and of course my preparation of top executives for congressional hearings. These things are about reducing complicated concepts to ideas that real people can relate to. And once you have helped someone prepare for a televised event that 100 million people will be watching, no audience is too daunting.
LD: During your first stint working for then Sen. Hillary Clinton, what led to your interest in going to law school as opposed to staying in D.C. and politics? What did you want to do with a law degree at the time?
KD: I can actually remember the day I decided to go to law school. I was sitting at my desk in the Russell Senate Office Building, thinking that I loved working for the government and also the part of my job as Hillary’s press secretary that allowed me to translate policy concepts into terms reporters would write down. I wasn’t interested in policy work myself but decided that a good future job for me would be one where I could work for the government in enforcement and do trial work – I decided to become a prosecutor.
LD: You clerked for two very highly regarded judges. Can you share something you learned from one or both of them, or perhaps a memory or two that stands out from the clerkships?
KD: It was such a privilege to clerk for these two incomparable jurists – I could not have been luckier on this front. I am grateful for their encouragement, personal and professional. With Judge Garland, my strongest memories are that he performed my wedding ceremony and he and his family were our first visitors at home after our first child was born. My strongest clerkship memory is standing next to him at a standing desk in his office overlooking the Capitol as he went through each word of the opinions we wrote, no detail too small, making sure the final product was exactly right.
With Justice Breyer, I also remember most strongly the craft of writing the opinions. We would exchange drafts – you would do a draft, he would rewrite it entirely, and then you would edit – with no track changes! I also thought, “Wow, I am erasing the words of a Supreme Court Justice.” The Justice was always able to see connections in cases long before anyone else could.
LD: Can you discuss what it was about your experience as an Assistant U.S. Attorney that confirmed for you that you wanted to be a trial lawyer?
KD: Being an AUSA is one of the best jobs in the law – you get up every day with one goal, to do justice. Also, in that job, I realized how much I loved talking to juries, especially in closing argument after you and the jury have been in a hermetically sealed environment for weeks watching all the facts come out.
LD: Once the 2012 campaign had wrapped up, what eventually led you to consider private practice as opposed to possibly returning to prosecutorial work? And why Boies Schiller Flexner instead of other suitors?
KD: When I was asked to do the Obama debates in 2012, I felt that it was the right thing to do to resign my career post as an AUSA. Then, immediately after the debates, I had my second child and didn’t go back to work immediately. Even though I missed working for the government, the distance from work led me to think more about going to a firm, or even in-house at a company. BSF was a perfect fit for me: Trial work and crisis management is in their DNA. When I visited, everyone seemed energized about their work but also informal, friendly and low key. I never thought I would go to a law firm at all, much less love it there, but that’s what happened.
LD: The D.C. budget autonomy case certainly involved some interesting issues, and led to a D.C. Superior Court judge upholding the Budget Autonomy Act giving the District control over spending of local funds. But what was the motivation for you and your husband taking it on? And for free?
KD: The case was a perfect mix of legal issues of first impression, politics, and a goal no one thought could ever be achieved. Also, I love D.C., having lived here since college. As we got into the case, and did archival research at Howard University and the Library of Congress, we learned what an important civil rights issue budget autonomy was since the fight for home rule in the District. We even interviewed all living former Members of Congress who worked on the original Home Rule Act and persuaded them to write an amicus brief. It was less of a case and more of a crusade.
Working on this case with my husband was very fun for us – less so for our kids, who had to listen to us talk about it all the time. I used to say that no one was more opposed to budget autonomy than our daughter.
LD: We hear a lot about debate prep during the campaigns. To an outsider, what does it take to be good at this role? How have you ascended to the top of this type of niche service?
KD: Figuring out what makes a good debate is very similar to figuring out what makes a good trial. First, your goal is to persuade people, in language that resonates and moves them. Second, both can be thought of as a series of “moments” – the things that stick with people after the whole thing is over and much of it becomes a blur.
Part of my job is thinking hard about what the moments will be and how the issues will be joined in a way that makes everyone say, “Oh, now I get what’s really going on here.” And then third, both are about predicting what the other side is going to do and how to use that to your advantage. For both, I think it helps to be a lawyer who, as I did in my last professional life, focused on communications. But in the end, I prefer trials because I get to talk to the audience myself!
LD: There definitely seemed to be a consensus that Hillary Clinton did very well at the debates in 2016, despite what appeared to be a double-standard of Clinton having to excel and Trump having to meet a more minimum threshold. Are you satisfied with how these debates went?
LD: I’ve read that you were pregnant with your third child during a period in 2015 in which the Oracle trial, the primary campaign and the Benghazi hearings were all going on, among other work I’m sure. Looking back, do you have any secret for how you were able to do all that?
KD: I don’t think I am unique in this respect. Fortunately, times are changing and there are more and more women juggling these sorts of jobs and kids. Somehow we all manage – partially by force of will. Lucky for me, my husband is incredibly supportive and my kids think it is normal. They always come to trial for a few days. At the last trial, the trial team set up an elaborate Hot Wheels track for my kids. At a certain point, I was not sure who was enjoying it more, my kids or my colleagues.
LD: In looking over your career path, it’s been a pretty incredible string of positions over a relatively short period of time. Is there anything beyond what you’re doing now that you’ve always wanted to do, either to add in the mix now or as a later-career move?
KD: I truly love the job I have now. I get to work on some of the best and most interesting cases in the country. I represent some of the most innovative companies in the world. I get to go to trial. And I get a lot of support from my firm and my colleagues, who happen to be some of the best lawyers in the country.